This past year “demanded more from all of us than anyone planned — and the digital team at U.S. Bank was at the center of it all,” says Dominic Venturo, Chief Digital Officer at U.S. Bank — the fifth largest banking institution in the country.
In 2020, as virtual banking became more widely used than ever, his team doubled-down on creating and perfecting digital offerings. That included an option to screenshare with bankers and receive help, a voice assistant for the U.S. Bank app, and more. Venturo leads the digital team, which works with major business lines and technology partners to deliver digital solutions in an agile way.
In a recent email interview with InnoLead, Venturo broke down how the innovation and digital teams at U.S. Bank work together, the big wins that made 2020 the year of digital innovation at his company, and the advice he gives most often.
What are one or two of your team’s biggest accomplishments from 2020? Why did you choose these particular initiatives?
Digital was so integrally linked in so many of the ways we helped customers through this difficult year. From digital PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] applications that streamlined customers’ ability to get the support they needed, and [do-it-yourself] mortgage forbearance, and payment assistance programs to a new chatbot, and a whole host of updates to our mobile app relating to COVID communications. It also included mobile check deposit enhancements to support stimulus payments. We even ramped up a unique new screen sharing feature called Cobrowse that allowed customers to share their app or browser with a banker and get step-by-step visual help in a digital way — at a time when just walking into a branch was not always an option.
In the midst of all of this, we still hit our timetable for our biggest digital release of 2020, a full 18 months of work which culminated in the August rollout of Smart Assistant, our new voice assistant inside the U.S. Bank Mobile App. Smart Assistant allows customers to bank where, when, and how they want in the easiest and most efficient way possible by simply using their own words (spoken or text).
How do you get executive leadership on board with innovation and experimentation?
In general, leaders like positive results and don’t like surprises. Innovation and experimentation can lead to great results but, by their very nature, the future is unknown and it’s rarely a straight path to success with emerging tech. It’s my job as a leader to help everyone in the company, including senior leadership, understand that failing is not only okay, but required, in order to succeed. We also make clear what the costs and benefits of each initiative will be — and where and how it will impact the business.
It’s also important to have a robust process and capabilities to be able to manage the risk and success of new ideas. Revenue generation is not always the primary objective of each innovation — sometimes it’s efficiency or some other beneficial outcome — but it’s helpful for senior leadership to see the why behind the experiments in which we invest our time and resources. There is also a cost to not innovating and experimenting that our executive leadership has a very keen grasp of.
In general, leaders like positive results and don’t like surprises.
How do you prioritize areas for exploration and investment?
Deciding on what to focus on from an innovation perspective is very complex. However, the team needs clear guardrails in order to make the most of their thinking and drive the biggest potential impact for our company. With that, we have identified a number of key focus areas, ranging from artificial intelligence and blockchain to Internet of Things, as a starting point of what technologies we think have the greatest potential impact to the future of the bank and our customers. From there, we also break out the work into different time horizons. These frameworks allow us to evaluate each specific opportunity and its potential impact on changing the way we work or serve our customers — in the near, medium, or long term. This gives the team basic parameters so they can know where best to look and evaluate potential opportunities, but not get too prescriptive to where they are not able to fully engage in or evaluate a particular emerging technology.
Can you talk me through one innovation-related challenge you have faced and how you worked through it?
Within innovation, we face new challenges every day. Sometimes that is struggling to allow a technology to work the way that’s intended. Other times, the technology works great, but the use case just isn’t there the way we thought it might be or the market just might not be ready for it yet. There are times an innovation feels like a slam-dunk conceptually, but the experience just isn’t what it needs to be once it’s prototyped.
One example would be our early work with voice technology. We developed prototypes that had very promising results years ago, but consumers were not yet comfortable with voice interaction, and the technology was challenged in the real world of dialects, slang, background noise, and more. Put simply, the promising prototypes just didn’t scale. We had to do two things: Wait for broader consumer acceptance and adoption of voice solutions, and then also solve for the other items through rigorous model training and development. We could have just said, “This isn’t ready for prime time” and moved on, but we didn’t — and the work and patience paid off.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started in the innovation realm?
The advice I continue to give myself, and my team, is: communicate, communicate, communicate. Innovation is a messy business with uncertain outcomes. If you are not constantly sharing and getting feedback, you run the risk of having key partners feel disconnected, and they will disengage.
I think one of the most important decisions we made for innovation at U.S. Bank was clearly defining the scope of our team to the exploration, testing, and proof of concept phases, and then having the implementation and execution work transition to the business once commercialization was viable. That solves a lot of organizational problems and excess noise, when teams don’t get caught up in “Who is doing what?” or “Who gets the credit or ownership of a technology?” And it helps the innovation team focus on what they do best, which is dreaming up what the world can look like in the future through new and emerging technology.